Being a Female Chemist
Hours: 40 per week
Starting salary is usually £35,000+ for someone with a Masters degree.
Qualifications required: Bachelor's degree in chemistry/biology/related field (though master's or doctoral degree is often preferred). Plus, work experience in the industry is usually required.
While roughly equal numbers of women and men receive science and engineering degrees, women are still underrepresented in terms of employment.
In chemistry, women now garner 49% of bachelor's degrees but only 39% of PhDs - Scientific American.
What's it like being a Bioanalytical Chemist?
Neelima, 37, is a bioanalytical chemist. She lives in the Jamaica Plains in Boston, Massachusetts and is originally from Manchester in the UK.
Job title: Bioanalytical chemist (Senior Associate Scientist)
Current employer: Amgen, 9 months
Hours: 40 hours per week on average
What's it like being a scientist?
It's fun, I really like it. Some days are hard, like in any job but overall I really enjoy it and it uses my strengths.
What projects are you working on right now?
Often, I'll be working on multiple drugs at a time, and sometimes other drugs outside of oncology, like infectious diseases. I work in the early development phase, which is after someone has discovered that a particular chemical might work as a drug and before they are tested with human patients (which we call 'clinical trials').
My job is designing experiments to test whether the potential drug will do what we hope it will do (i.e. treat cancer). The data from our experiments is then submitted to the FDA (which is the 'Food and Drug Administration Authority' in the USA) and if it looks good, they will start testing the drug with real human cancer patients at clinical trials.
What's it like working in a lab?
Working in a lab can be lonely at times because you are by yourself a lot running experiments without much interaction but it can be cool to plan an experiment in your mind and then actually get to run it. I enjoy working with my hands, getting data and asking a scientific question to get an answer. In some labs there is camaraderie and we often chat during incubation time so that can be social too. Overall, I prefer it to being in meetings all day because you have a lot of freedom in a lab.
I wake up at...
I wake up at at 6:30 am, and slowly get ready for work. I take the T (Boston public transport) to Cambridge and usually listen to a podcast or the radio on the way. When I get to work, I start my day by checking emails then I will process data from the experiment ran the day before. I then meet with my manager and we will review the data together and plan experiments for the day. The remainder of the day is spent in the lab. It can be quite intense at times but there is always a good camaraderie in the lab and people to chat with during incubation times. The pace is fast which makes the work both exciting and rewarding.
What are some of the challenges?
In the lab you can feel disconnected to patients because you're so far apart from seeing the impact. it can also be hard when experiments don't work - there's a lot of troubleshooting and trial and error involved, so you just keep going until you get somewhere! It can take weeks or months sometimes to get around a problem.
Do you experience any challenges being a female in a typically male industry?
I don't feel too many challenges being female at this stage of my career. However I do feel to succeed in this industry, I must continually have confidence in myself and my work. No-one knows my data better than I do, and I always remind myself of this when someone questions my work.
What are some of the good things about your job?
Each day can be really different, I prefer it to sitting at a desk looking at a computer. I'm active, answering cool questions, developing technologies which are novel and that I can share with other people so there's a real sense of collaboration. There's also good work-life balance; I don't usually work weekends or evening.
What did you study to be a chemist?
I studied chemistry for undergrad at Manchester University with a year of industrial experience in London, followed by an MPhil in and biomedical sciences at NYU. I ended up not finishing my PhD for personal reasons which has capped what I can do to an extent, so having a PhD can help to be a manager but with the lifestyle I have, I'm happy with where I am.
After studying, I landed my first job in New York and then moved to San Francisco where I worked at Genentech for 8 years. I am currently living in Boston working at Amgen.
What made you want to become a chemist?
I didn't as a kid to be honest; I thought about being a doctor because my dad is a doctor but I had no real thoughts about it until around GCSE's and A-levels when I realised that I was good at chemistry. It came easily, so I decided to study it at university and at uni i got better at it - I felt like I grasped it even more. So, I'd say I fell into it and with industrial experience decided it was definitely for me.
Are people normally surprised when they find out what you do?
They do find it surprising - both females and males. When I tell people that I'm a chemist, I'm usually the first chemist they've met- it happens quite a lot actually!
What advice would you give to younger girls who are aspiring scientists, or who haven't even considered it as a career?
If someone has a curious mind, this is a good job. If you like to ask questions and find answers and run experiments, this would be fun for you. I'd recommend getting industrial experience because you can get a sense of whether you like working in a lab.
As far as choosing a job, something I've learned is to be selective, don't just take anything - sometimes we're too thankful to have any job but they should be thankful to have us! We've worked hard to be where we are, so find a job you're really happy with. People should know their worth - we have value and we're not replaceable.
My best day was...
When one of the drugs I was working on got approved - I was really happy and proud because I'd worked so hard on it.
After work I usually...
Feel tired! With lab work you're standing all day, working with your hands, so it can be physically tiring, so I usually head home and watch a film and hang out with friends at the weekend.
"If someone has a curious mind, this is a good job. If you like to ask questions and find answers and run experiments, this would be fun for you."
Prospects.ac.uk: See their analytical chemist profile for more information.
Royal Society of Chemistry: the world’s leading chemistry community, advancing excellence in the chemical sciences.
Analytical Division: The RSC's Analytical Division works to promote analytical science and provides a forum for scientists to exchange information and ideas. It offers support for young researchers (under 35) in their early careers.